John Knox: Film Critic
A couple of years ago I took a class in the history of the Scottish Reformation, which centred on John Knox’s voluminous accounts of that upheaval. Instead of writing on yet another of Knox’s dry theological pieces, my professor allowed me to submit a final paper in the form of a pair of film reviews written in an approximation of Knox’s voice and style, discussing a topic that was near and dear to Knox’s heart. I’m posting it here for fun after seeing Victor Morton’s and others’ jokes on Twitter about #TheologianFilmCriticism. Without further ado:
What follows is a speculative piece that attempts to borrow the distinct voice of John Knox as expressed in his many writings, and imagine what it might say in response to seeing two films of a similar subject: martyrdom.
Fear not any reports of my backsliding; nay, slay the very thoughts as they enter. Have you no faith in our Lord, who watches with loving care over every soul who flees from heresy and death? Have I not proven my deepest devotion to our true King, our Almighty God, and to our struggle, watered by the blood of our dearest friends and warmed by the flames of that unquenchable hope that God set within me, and others, for the advancement of his Evangel in Scotland and the world? Do you think he would allow myself to fall into the abyss at this late hour? Though I am but mortal and as ever tempted and prone, as in my worst days of papistry, to fall deceived by the Father of Lies, so our Lord is good and gracious to deliver me, and chasten me, and hold me above the rot that consumes so much (emanating from Rome, its source), such that I might be a good professor to all of you. So do not pay mind to that which is being bruited from here to St. Andrew’s. Indeed, I was seen by many at the ‘cinema,’ where I first beheld what the commonalty call ‘moving images,’ but I have not cast in with the Antichrist, nor Sathan. I shall explane all in this letter.
My first conviction in this matter, before even nearing that hall, was to order against its profit, certainly through the avoidance of Christ’s own, and we hoped, of all the commoners. The graven image is not to be worshipped, said our Lord, and such strong clear proclamations from His word must needs have settled any remaining query.
Still, some of our brothers, laden with insight of such worldly matters as the use of moving images for the crude and temporary placation of the folk, undertook to persuade those of us in sole pursuit of the advancement of Jesus Christ’s banner in this land, to stay our admonishments, and our swords, and labour to meet these diabolical creations as moving paintings crafted for God’s good pleasure, to deliver the word and its good lessons in a manner appealing to the common man.
Upon beholding these suspicious crafts in their entire luster, I became aware of how desirable their experience must seem to the common man, who lacks for wisdom and means to receive correction, whether by his illiteracy or his simpleness. And so my opinioun did change. Surely as the scriptures attest to their own necessary value to reprove and rebuke, we may take these images, suspect as they are, and put them to similar use. Though I do not give the images or those who partake of them my blessing, neither must I condemn them outright. Some mysterious fruit is being borne here.
If these images are yet golden calves, let each man attendant watch his own fate carefully, and that of his brother, and flee accordingly at the first signal of malicious intent. For it does not profit us, friends, to test the patience of our God Almighty, even as he lovingly withholds his judgement; rather his lenience is all the better for his servants to act as one mind in pure and holy obedience and render these images unto ashes, as with all temporary things.
I will now offer you my opinioun on two of these ‘moving images’. One is vile; the other will be useful for instruction, particularly to those of us who have been squeezed by the presses of Rome.
A Man For All Seasons (1966) Directed by Fred Zinnemann
As much as this work bruits a noble report of that wretched traitor More, one of Satan’s chief agents in the history of England, it is wholly satisfying to impart to you, brothers, the news that Fred Zinneman’s artistic decisions that cannot be understood as anything but efforts to encourage the wolves in their blind stumbling, and for the persecution and dolour of Christ’s true kirk in England, are themselves blunted and turned by the great hand of our Lord, who returns such attacks against his flock to his enemies sevenfold. To cite one such passage from the work: the opening images, which show naught but statues — demons and gargoyles — give way to the sight of a rich gold chain hanging limply from the fat neck of that pig Wolsey. What a summary of the Roman kirk: slothful, hideous, sweating and stinking in their chains of power! How appropriate that this psalm for one of Satan’s agents, for the bruited depth of his valour and reported strength of his conscience, should undermine the Papists in its very first moments!
The work endeavours to sully the good memory of King Harry, of course an early friend to the cause that binds us. No man is without fault, and yet as each tree is known by its fruit, so the branch that bore the dear young Prince, who departed our company hastily and not without little grief, should not be so castigated and burnt in such falsehoods as are proffered here. The king, who in his time and through what wisdom was granted him realized the need for separation from Rome, is here cast as a saucy fool, a braggart, a petulant child-king (the artists, were they seeking such a waif and monarch in one person, need only have turned their faces north).
What gives greatest offense is not the lowered record of a friend of Christ’s evangel, but the piety attributed to the plot’s central figure, that traitor More. That such malevolence and unyielding devotion to the Roman Antichrist is refashioned as the most pure and gracious of spirits to be found in all the realm of England, and even, (the artists presume, though we shall not speak for them), the isles themselves, is enough to sicken the heart of any good and faithful soul so beholden to its sight. Nowhere to be seen is the devil that laboured to destroy Tyndale, to corrupt the minds of the commonalty with twisted tracts and soothing lies, the butcher who even sought, unknowingly, but no less damnably, to prevent the very birth of good King Edward by holding King Harry to the hypocrisies of Rome.
Further condemnation may be heaped on the opulence of the images themselves; the richness of the locations and robes belies the artists’ intent to revel in excessive colours and pleasures. To look upon these sights and sigh with delight takes too much attention, I fear, from the contemplation and adoration of our Lord himself, and merely replaces one idol for another. I fear for the commonalty, who look upon these images and desire the wealth in one scene after another. Flee to His word, and seek the Lord there!
Ignoring More’s stubborn loyalty to Rome, the virtuous watcher may suffer a twinge of sympathy for the Chancellor, if only in recognizing the press in which a righteous, convicted soul is placed for obedience to his conscience. Were More replaced with any one of Christ’s true martyrs slain these last long years, it should be a work of great encouragement and truth. As it is not this, brothers, I beg you to cast it out of your midst should it find shelter among you in any form.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) Directed by Marc Rothemund
As much as that irreconcilable wreck above is symptomatic of the impurity and hypocrisy of the Roman kirk, here is a work of images that many of Christ’s own in this land, and other realms; that all who have toiled these long ages for His evangel may seek as sustenance for the weary spirit. For in this account, (which, it is agreeable to note, works less powerfully through its images than through its words) there is to be found a most affecting display of courage and love for Christ himself and his Gospel, unto the cruel hands of death and the greater glory of God.
This exemplary lesson in martyrdom must be tempered, however, by its flowering in a young woman. One must be careful of the admiration that swells at seeing the girl, made inappropriately large by the projection, remain unconquered in spirit and in mind, lest that admiration remove any attention from our worship of Christ.
The plot details the brave efforts of this girl, Sophie Scholl, to profess the truth of Christ, and the wrongdoing of her Nazi oppressors, to her own people. I confess I felt more than a little kinship with her, so closely does each image follow her journey through courts and jails, that tumultuous path of righteous imprisonment that many of us have known in our time, and by which many have perished for the advancement of the true kirk.
Here, captured in moving images, is the experience of God awarding his servant grace under pressure. And how my heart swelled to see her exercising her pure conscience in the face of Sathan’s attacks, of resisting the evil conduct of her rulers and remaining loyal to God alone.
Standing before her persecutors, she proclaims the truth to their sneering faces just as a woman of God should: quietly, humbly, sure in its strength. To her butchers, she says “You will soon be standing where we stand now.” And lo, the historical record does indeed indicate her prophecy came to be. Any work that so purely shows God’s spirit at work in one under the most dolourous of circumstances deserves to be commended.
I must make mention that, as stated in the film, the girl is closer in persuasion to Luther than to our good friend Calvin, but this is not a major flaw. She resists the godless persuasions of her captors with as much skill as any of our number might, and our mutual agreement on major doctrines (though she never states her views of Rome, we can gather from her conduct that they are wholly good and satisfying), is more than can be said about that other work I have written about.
One last note, regarding Sophie Scholl’s pictorial splendour, or rather, it’s lack: it appears very dull; very gray and without colour. This must be celebrated, as it draws the attentive watcher’s mind to the words being spoken, not to the idolatrous beauty so obvious in More’s work. The ears may listen closely to Sophie’s answers, and the mind, undistracted by papist opulence, may offer thanks and praise to God even while still in a viewing.
This second work I commend to you brothers, and so approve of its spread among out kirk. There is much truth to be learned from it. Though my cautions about the ‘cinema’ are not yet fully allayed, there is clearly some excellent progress being made towards purifying it for the work of Christ.